BP Moves From Cleanup to Restoration Phase

Biologists and wildlife advocates say the disaster is far from over

12-15-2011 // Craig Guillot
Chandeleur Sound Discoloration

One and a half years after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, BP is officially ending its cleanup operations on the Gulf Coast. Unless officials can prove that newly discovered oil came from the company's well, they will no longer be responsible for cleaning it up.

The plan was approved by the Coast Guard and while cleanup operations are coming to an end, BP has $1 billion set aside for the commencing restoration phase. Biologists and wildlife advocates say the end of the cleanup is an important milestone but the recovery and disaster is far from over. Careful observation, research and effective restoration efforts will be required to mitigate forthcoming impacts that may arise years from now.

Oil still out there

According to official reports from the Coast Guard, 90% of the Gulf Coast has been deemed clean.

Senior Wildlife Biologist Doug Inkley said while that number sounds impressive there is still a lot of oil out there that will be around for decades. He points to Prince William Sound where more than 20 years after hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil were spilled from the Compare-Exxon-Valdez-and-BP-Oil-Spills, one can still dig below the surface of the shore and find oil there today. It wasn't until years after that disaster that the herring fishery slowly started to collapse.

Inkley said that while the hope is that natural processes will continue to break down the oil, there needs to be continuous monitoring.

"Do not mistake the cleanup with the Gulf being clean. The Gulf is not clean. No one can tell you how much oil remains at the bottom floor but it is clearly there because it has been seen," said Inkley.

Ralph Portier, Ph.D., Professor and Distinguished Louisiana Professor of Environmental Sciences at Louisiana State University said the fact that there is still oil out there calls for continued flexibility by the Coast Guard to respond to unforeseen changes. Portier believes that while all concerned parties, including BP, understand the disaster is not over, there needs to be more research before anyone can make "final decisions."

"Based on the legacy of the Valdez spill, we would like to see more monitoring and evaluation of that monitoring. I think everyone realizes there could be additional concerns in the future," said Portier.

Further cleanup can cause more harm than good

Oiled pelicans waiting to be cleaned

While there still remains oil in some marsh areas such as Bay Jimmy, there comes a point in the fragile marshes and wetlands where it is no longer feasible to remove oil because doing so could do more harm than good. The simple act of walking in a marsh can stir up soil, uproot plants and even bring more subsurface oil to the surface where it can impact more wildlife.

During the summer of 2010, officials were using vacuum barges to suck up to 30,000 gallons of oil per day in some places but they didn't venture far into the marsh for fear of causing more damage.

"If you try to get every drop of oil you're going to further destroy those habitats and do more damage than good. You have to get it from the edges and I think they've done what they can up to this point," said Dr. Edward Overton, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, School of the Coast and Environment, Department of Environmental Sciences, Louisiana State University.

Overton said it's a logical next step that operations now move more from clean up to long-term restoration. He also said that "throwing tons of money" into cleaning operations would probably serve little purpose because they have reach a point of diminishing returns in cleanup.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Suzanne Kerver said in a recent AP article that any new oil that appears on the coast would be treated "as any kind of oil response." Oil would be tested and analyzed to determine if it had the same characteristics of oil from the now-plugged Macondo well. If so, BP would be responsible for cleaning it up.

Long term restoration

Overton said that the disaster exacerbated some land loss in the state's coastal marshes and put a spotlight on Louisiana's historical struggle with erosion. In the summer of 2010, heavy oil killed some marsh cane which held the fragile land in place.

While the disaster is far from over, Overton also said that much of the wildlife has dramatically rebounded since the summer of 2010.

"Most indicators look reasonably good right now. In many of these areas we're seeing an incredible amount of birds, shrimp and redfish. It's an amazing difference since the summer of 2010," said Overton.

BP has set aside $1 billion for the restoration phase which could include the rebuilding of coastal marshes; conservation of sensitive areas for ocean habitat and impacted wildlife; replenishment of damaged beaches; and the restoration of barrier islands. The agreement was made between the company, the federal government and five affected states in April 2011 and is the largest of its kind in any oil pollution case.

David Muth, Louisiana State Director of NWF's Coastal Louisiana Campaign, said diversions, which were partially used in 2010 to divert some oil from the wetlands, hold promise in long-term coastal restoration. He has long advocated well-designed and strategically placed diversions to help create a more sustainable solution for land building in the state.

“In the long run, unless you start rebuilding marsh by major diversions from the Mississippi River, you are fighting a losing battle,” Muth said. “We need to fix the underlying problems with the system.”

Get Our E-Newsletter 
Subscribe to National Wildlife Magazine!